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Black Art and Abrose by Guy Gilpatric


“... The Naytives of the Seacoast told me many fearsome Tales of these Magycians, or Voodoos, as they called Them. It would seem that the Mystic Powers of these Magycians is hereditary, and that the Spells, Incantacions, and other Secretts of their Profession are passed on One to the Other and holden in great Awe by the People. The Marke of this horride Culte is the Likeness of a great Human Eye, carved in the Fleshe of the Backe, which rises in Ridges as it heals and lasts Forever ...”

  —Extract from “A Truthful Accounte of a Voyage and Journey
  to the Land of Afrique, Together with Numerous Drawings and
  Mappes, and a most Humble Petition Regarding the Same.”
  Presented by Roberte Waiting, Gent. in London, Anno D. 1651.

A few blocks west of the subway, and therefore off the beaten track of the average New Yorker, is San Juan Hill. If you ever happen on San Juan unawares, you will recognize it at once by its clustering family of mammoth gas houses, its streets slanting down into the North River, and the prevailing duskiness of the local complexion. If you chance to stray into San Juan after sundown, you will be relieved to note that policemen are plentiful, and that they walk in pairs. This last observation describes the social status of San Juan or any other neighbourhood better than volumes of detailed episodes could begin to do.

Of late years many of the Fust Famblies of San Juan have migrated northward to the teeming negro districts of Harlem, but enough of the old stock remains to lend the settlement its time-honoured touch of gloom. Occasionally, too, it still makes its way to the public notice by sanguinary affrays and race riots. San Juan Hill is a geographical, racial, and sociological fact, and will remain so until the day when safety razors become a universal institution.

San Juan is a community in itself. It has its churches, its clubs, its theatres, its stores, and—sighs of relief from the police—it used to have its saloons. It is a cosmopolitan community, too—as cosmopolitan as it can be and still retain its Senegambian motif.

Negroes from Haiti, Jamaica, Salvador, Cuba; from Morocco and Senegal; blue-black negroes from the Pacific; ebony negroes from the South; brown, tan, yellow, and buff negroes from everywhere inhabit San Juan. Every language from Arabic to Spanish is spoken by these—the cosmopolites of cosmopolitan San Juan.

Pussonally, Mr. Ambrose de Vere Travis spoke only English. Because he hailed from Galveston, Tex., he spoke it with a Gulf intonation at once liquid, rich, and musical. He stood six feet five on his bare soles, so his voice was somewhat reminiscent of the Vatican organ.

Ambrose was twenty-four years old. Our story finds him a New Yorker of three years' standing, all of which he had spent as a dweller on San Juan Hill. Originally the giant Mr. Travis had served as furnace tender in the subterraneous portions of the Swalecliffe Arms apartments, that turreted edifice in the Eighties that frowns across at the Palisades from Riverside Drive. But his size and the size of his smile had won for Ambrose the coveted and uniformed position of door-man, a post at which he served with considerable success and the incidental tips.

The recently wealthy Mr. Braumbauer, for instance, really felt that he was somebody, when Ambrose opened the door of his car and bowed him under the portcullis of Swalecliffe. And y'understand me, a feller's willing he should pay a little something for service once in a while. And so, one way and another, Ambrose managed to eke from his job a great deal more than he drew on pay day.

But Mr. Travis's source of income did not stop there—far from it. He had brought from Galveston a genius for rolling sevens—or, if he missed seven the first roll, he could generally make his point within the next three tries. He could hold the dice longer than any man within the San Juan memory, which, in view of the fact that craps is to San Juan what bridge is to Boston, is saying a great deal. Ambrose was simply a demon with the bones, and he was big enough to get away with it.

True, there had been difficulties.

One evening at the Social Club Ambrose held the dice for a straight sixteen passes. He and five other courtiers of fortune were bounding the ivories off the cushion of a billiard table, to the end that the contest be one of chance and not of science. In the midst of Ambrose's stentorian protests that the baby needed footwear, one of the losers forgot his breeding to the extent of claiming that Ambrose had introduced a loaded die. As he seconded his claims with a razor, the game met a temporary lull.

When the furniture had ceased crashing, the members of the club emerged from beneath the pool tables to see Mr. Travis tying up a slashed hand, while he of the razor lay moaning over a broken shoulder and exuding teeth in surprising quantities.

After this little incident no one ever so far forgot himself as to breathe the faintest aspersion on Mr. Travis, his dice, his way of throwing them down or of picking them up.

It was generally conceded that his conduct throughout the fray had been of the best, and the affair did much to raise him in popular esteem—especially as he was able to prove the caviler's charges to be utterly unfounded.

And so, with his physical beauty, his courage, and his wealth, Mr. Ambrose de Vere Travis became something of a figure in San Juan's social circles.

Just when Ambrose fell in love with Miss Aphrodite Tate is not quite clear.

Aphrodite (pronounced just as spelled) was so named because her father thought it had something to do with Africa. She was astoundingly, absolutely, and gratifyingly black, and Ambrose was sure that he had never seen any one quite so beautiful.

Aphrodite lived with her parents, the ancient and revered Fremont-Tates, patroons of San Juan. In the daytime she was engaged as maid by a family that suttingly treated her lovely; while in the evening she could usually be found at the St. Benedict Young People's Club. And it was here that Ambrose met her.

True love ran smoothly for a long time. At last, when he felt the tune was ripe, Ambrose pleaded urgent business for two evenings and shook down the Social Club dice fanciers for the price of the ring.

Then Mr. Dominique Raffin loomed dark on the horizon. Mr. Raffin did not loom as dark as he might have loomed, however, because he was half white. He hailed from Haiti, and was the son of a French sailor and a transplanted Congo wench. He was slight of build and shifty of eye. His excuse for being was a genius for music. He could play anything, could this pasty Dominique, but of all instruments he was at his tuneful best on the alto saxophone.

“Lawd! Oh, Lawd!” his audience would ejaculate, as with closed eyes and heads thrown back they would drink in the sonorous emanations from the brazen tube. “Dat's de horn ob de Angel Gabriel—dat's de heabenly music ob de spears!” And so Dominique's popularity grew among the ladies of San Juan, even if among the gentlemen it did not.

To tell the truth, Dominique was something of a beau. Because he played in an orchestra, he had ample opportunity to study the deportment of people who passed as fashionable. His dress was immaculate; his hair was not so kinky that it couldn't be plastered down with brilliantine, and he perfumed himself copiously. His fingers were heavily laden with rings. Dominique's voice was whining—irritating.

His native tongue was French, but he had learned to speak English in Jamaica. Thus his accent was a curious mixture of French and Cockney, lubricated with oily African.

Altogether, it is not to be wondered that such sturdy sons of Ham as Ambrose disliked the snaky Mr. Raffin. Disliked him the more when his various musical and cultural accomplishments made him a general favourite with the ladies. And then, when he absolutely cut Mr. Travis from the affections of Miss Tate, the wrath of the blacker and more wholesome San Juan citizens knew no bounds.

As for Ambrose—he sulked. Even his friends, the fur-lined tenants of Swalecliffe Arms, noticed that something worried the swart guardian of their gate. In the evenings Ambrose gave his entire time to frenzied rolling of the bones and was surprised to see that here, at least, luck had not deserted him.

On the few occasions when he forsook the green baize for an evening's dancing at the St. Benedict Young People's Guild, the sight of the coveted Miss Aphrodite whirling in the arms of the hated Raffin almost overcame him.

Finally the lovesick Mr. Travis decided to call upon the lady of his heart and demand an explanation. After some rehearsal of what he wanted to say, Ambrose betook himself to the tenement in which the Tate family dwelt. At sight of her cast-off swain, Miss Aphrodite showed the whites of her eyes and narrowed her lips to a thin straight line—perhaps an inch and a half thin. Evidently she was displeased.

Aphrodite opened the interview by inquiring why she was being pestered and intermediated by a low-down black nigger that didn't have no mo' brains than he had manners. Her feelings was likely to git the better of her at any moment; in which event Mr. Travis had better watch out, that was all—jest watch out.

The astounded Mr. Travis did his best to pacify this Amazon; to explain that he had merely come to inquire the reason for her displeasure; to learn in what respect Mr. Raffin had proved himself so sweetly desirable.

The answer was brief and crushing. It seemed that where Mr. Travis was a big, bulky opener of doors, Mr. Raffin was a sleek and cultured Chesterfield—a musician—an artist. Where Mr. Travis could not dance without stepping on everybody in the room, Mr. Raffin was a veritable Mordkin. Where Mr. Travis hung out with a bunch of no-good crap-shooting black buck niggers, Mr. Raffin's orchestral duties brought him into the most cultured s'ciety. In short, the yellow man from Haiti was a gentleman; the black man from Texas was a boor.

This unexpected tirade made the unhappy Ambrose a trifle weak in the knees. Then pride came to the rescue, and he drew himself to his full and towering six feet five. He held out his mammoth hands before Miss Aphrodite and warned her that with them, at the first provocation, he would jest take and bust Mr. Raffin in two. This done, he would throw the shuddering fragments into the street, and with his feet—Exhibit B—would kick them the entire length and breadth of the neighbourhood.

This threat only aroused new fires of scorn and vituperation, and Miss Tate informed her guest that, should he ever attempt the punitive measures described, Mr. Raffin would cut him up into little pieces. It seemed that Mr. Raffin carried a knife, and that he knew how to use it.

Mr. Travis snorted at this, and stamped out of the Tate apartment.

At his exit, doors closed softly on every floor, because the neighbours had listened to the tete-a-tete with intense interest. Even people in the next house had been able to hear most of it.

Ambrose made his furious way toward the Social Club, his mind set on mortal encounter with the hated Dominique. But—here was an inspiration!—why not win his money away from him first? To win away his last cent—to humble him—to ruin him—and then to break him in two and kick the pieces through the San Juan causeways, as per programme! This would be a revenge indeed!

Ambrose noted with satisfaction that Mr. Raffin was already at play, and crossing the smoke-filled room he threw down some money and took his place in the game.

Now, Mr. Travis was ordinarily a very garrulous and vociferous crap shooter, but to-night he was savagely silent. There was a disturbing, electric something in the air that the neutrals felt and feared. There was a look in the Travis eye that boded ill for somebody, and one by one the more prudent gamesters withdrew.

Then suddenly the storm broke.

Later accounts were not clear as to just what started the fray, but start it did.

Dominique's knife appeared from some place, and the table crashed. Then the knife swished through space like a hornet and buried its point harmlessly in a door across the room.

What followed is still a subject of wondering conversation on San Juan Hill.

It seems that Mr. Travis seized Mr. Raffin by the collar of his coat, and swung him round and round and over his head. Mr. Raffin streamed almost straight out, like the imitation airplanes that whirl dizzily about the tower in an amusement park. Suddenly there was a rending of cloth, and Dominique shot through the air to encounter the wall with a soul-satisfying thump.

Ambrose looked bewildered at the torn clothing he held in his hand, and then at the limp form of his late antagonist. Mr. Raffin lay groaning, naked from the waist up.

Ambrose strode across to administer further chastisement, but was halted by a cry from one of the onlookers. This man stood pointing at Dominique's naked back—pointing, and staring with eyes that rolled with genuine negro terror.

“Look!” gasped the affrighted one. “Look! It's de Voo-doo Eye— dat man's a witch! Ambrose, fo' de Lawd's sake, git away from hyar!”

“What you-all talkin' about?” scoffed Ambrose, striding closer, and rolling Dominique so that the light shone full on his back. “What you-all talkin'——Good Lawd”!

This last ejaculation from Ambrose was caused by the sight that met his gaze.

There, on the yellow back before him, reaching from shoulder to shoulder, was tattooed the likeness of a great human eye!

Everyone saw it now. To some—the Northern darkies—it meant nothing. But to the old-school Southern negroes it meant mystery—magic—death. It was the sign of the Voodoo!

Several of the more superstitious onlookers retreated in poor order, their teeth chattering. Their mammies had told them about the Voodoo Eye. They remembered the tales whispered in the slave quarters about people being prayed to death by these baleful creatures of ill omen! They weren't going to take any chances!

Ambrose, for all his natural courage, was shaken. He remembered old Tom Blue, the Texas Voodoo, who poisoned twenty-one people and came to life after the white men lynched him. And now he had laid rough hands on one of the deadly clan; had brought upon himself the wrath of a man who could simply wish him to death!

Trembling, he stooped down and looked at the Devil's Sign. He looked again—closely. Then he broke out into a ringing peal of wholesome darky laughter.

“Git up!” he shouted, as Dominique showed signs of life. “Git up, Mr. Voodoo, befo' Ah gits impatient an' throws you out de window!”

This recklessness—this defiance of the dread power—shocked even the least superstitious of the audience. By this time they were all under the spell of this mysterious mark. Those who hadn't recognized it at once had been quickly enlightened by the others.

Ambrose seized Dominique by the shoulder and dragged him to his feet. Swaying unsteadily, the mulatto looked around him through eyes closed to snakelike slits.

“Raffin,” said Ambrose, “you-all has on yo' back de Eye ob Voodoo. Dese gennlemen hyar thinks yo' is a Voodoo. Ah know yo' ain't!”

“I am a Voodoo! An' you, you sacre cochon,” hissed Raffin, “I'll make you wish you had nevaire been born!”

“Well, jes' fo' de present,” laughed Ambrose, good humour spreading all over his face, “you-all had better git outa my way, an' stay out! Git outa hyar quick!”

Dominique, his evil face twitching with fury, picked up the ragged shreds of his coat and walked unsteadily out.

At his exit a dead silence fell upon the remaining members. Then they gathered together in excited groups and discussed the incident in heated undertones. Ambrose, quite unconcerned, took up a pack of cards and commenced a game of solitaire.

He wasn't worrying. He knew that Dominique was no more a Voodoo than he was. Startled at first, he had noticed that the eye had not been carved in Dominique's back, as it should have been, but had been tattooed. This in itself made the thing doubtful. But more than this, the marks were the unmistakably accurate work of an electric tattooing machine.

Ambrose had spent his youth on the Galveston water front, and knew tattooing in all its forms. Electric tattooing on a Voodoo was about as much in keeping with the ancient and awesome dignity of the cult as spangled tights would be on the King of England. No—it was ridiculous. Dominique was not a Voodoo!

Ambrose continued his solitaire, humming as he played. Occasionally he cast an amused eye at the excited groups across the room, and was not surprised when Mr. Behemoth Scott, president of the club, at last came over to him.

“Mistah Travis,” began Mr. Scott deferentially, clearing his throat, “would you-all be good enough to jine our little gatherin' while we confabulate on dis hyar recent contabulaneous incident?”

“Suttingly, Mr. Scott, suttingly!” said Ambrose, pushing back his chair, and crossing the room with the quaking official. “What can Ah do fo' you-all?”

“Well, jest this,” said Mr. Scott. “You gennlemen kin'ly correc' me or bear out what Ah say. Leavin' aside all argument whether they is sech things as Voodoos, Ah guess any of you gennlemen from the South will remember Aunt Belle Agassiz and Tom Blue. Ah guess yo' mammies all done tole 'bout the African Voodoos, an' how ebery now an' den one of 'em crops up still. An' Ah guess dat we've seen to-night dat we've got a Voodoo among us. Now, Mr. Travis”—here he turned to Ambrose—“we know what Aunt Belle Agassiz done on de Mathis Plantation in Georgia— you ought to know what Tom Blue did in Texas. So we wants to warn you, as a fren' an' membah of dis club in good standin', dat you better leave town to-night.”

An assenting murmur arose from the crowd, with much rolling of eyes and nodding of heads.

Ambrose held up his hand for silence. A serious expression came over his features, and he towered tall and straight before them.

“Gennlemen,” he said, “Ah sho appreciates yo' good sperit in dis hyar unfo'tunate affair. But Ah tells you-all hyar an' now dat Dominique Raffin ain't no mo' Voodoo den Ah is. Now, Ah ain't sayin' dat he ain't a Voodoo, an' Ah ain't sayin' dat Ah am one. All Ah says is dat Ah's as much of a Voodoo as he is—an' Ah'm willin' to prove it!”

“How you-all do dat, Ambrose?” asked somebody.

“Ah'm comin' to dat,” replied Ambrose. “If you-all wants to decide dis mattah beyont all doubt, Ah respekf'ly suggests dat we hold a see-ance in dis hyar room, under any c'nditions dat you-all kin d'vise. If Ah cain't show yo mo' supernat'ral man'festations dan he can, Ah gives him fifty dollahs. If it's de oder way 'roun', he leaves de city within twenty-fo' hours. Is dat fair?”

“Well, it suttinly soun's puff'cly jest,” replied Mr. Scott. “We-all will appint a committee to frame de rules of de see-ance, an' make 'em fair fo' both. You's been willin' to prove yo'-se'f, Ambrose, an' yo' couldn't do mo'. If dis m'latter Voodoo don't want to do lak'wise, he can leave dese pahts moughty sudden. Ain't dat so, gennlemen?”

“Yassuh—he'll leave quick!” was the threatening reply.

“All right den, Ambrose,” continued the spokesman, “we'll 'range fo' dis sperit-summonin' contes' jes' as soon as we kin. We'll have it nex' Satiddy night at lates'. Meanwhile we-all is moughty obleeged to yo' for yo' willin'-ness to do de right thing.”

The great night arrived, and San Juan, dressed in its gala finery, wended its chattering way to the Senegambian seance. But beneath the finery and the chatter ran a subtle under-current of foreboding, for your negro is superstitious, and, well, Voodoos are Voodoos!

Dominique Raffin, dressed in somber black, went to the club alone and unattended save by Miss Aphrodite Tate. San Juan, fearing the Raffin mulatto and his ghostly powers, had held its respectful distance ever since the evening when Ambrose and his rage had revealed them. Familiarity breeding contempt, Miss Aphrodite knew her man, and feared him not.

They found the rooms of the social club full of excited negroes, for never before in San Juan's history had such a momentous event been scheduled. Raffin and Aphrodite were received with a fearsome respect by Behemoth Scott, who had been appointed master of ceremonies.

“Jes' make yo'se'f to home,” he greeted them. “Mista Travis ain't come yit; we has ten minutes befo' de contes' styarts.”

At last, with a bare minute to spare, Ambrose smilingly entered. He wore his splendid full-dress suit, a wonderful creation of San Juan's leading tailor, who, at Ambrose's tasteful suggestion, had faced the lapels with satin of the most royal purple. Set out by this background of colourful lapel was a huge yellow chrysanthemum, while on the broad red band that diagonally traversed his shining shirt front glittered like a decoration, the insignia from his Swalecliffe uniform cap.

“Good evenin', folks,” was his cheerful greeting. “If you-all is quite ready fo' dis see-ance, an' provided mah—er—wuthy opponent am ready, Ah'd jes' as soon pro_ceed.”

Miss Aphrodite gazed on the imposing figure of Ambrose with more than a little admiration. Comparing him with the trembling Raffin, she found much in his favour.

All but his footwear. Accustomed as she had become to the glistening patent leathers affected by Raffin, Ambrose's clumsy congress gaiters somewhat marred his gorgeousness. Nevertheless, she felt her affections wavering. Her speculations were interrupted by the voice of the master of ceremonies:

“Ladies an' gennlemen,” began Mr. Scott, “we-all has d 'cided to form a circle of twelve of our membahs wif dese two Voodoo gennlemen asettin' opp'site each oder in de circle. In o'dah to preclude any poss'bility of either Mista Travis or Mista Raffin from leavin' dere places, we has d'cided to tie dem to dere cheers by ropes passed 'roun' dere bodies an' fastened to de backs of de cheers. De lights will den be distinguished. When he lights is tu'ned out, Mista Raffin will be given fifteen minutes in which to summon de supernat'ral proofs—whatevah dey may be—of his bein' Voodoo. Den Mista Travis will be given his chanct.”

Amid the hushed whisperings of the assemblage the committee, six men and six women, Aphrodite included, took their places in the circle. Ambrose and the mulatto were seated opposite each other and were perhaps twelve feet apart. Raffin, nervously licking his lips, sat bolt upright while members of the committee passed ropes around him and the back of his chair, and tied his hands. In direct contrast to his rival, Ambrose slouched down in his seat and joked with the trembling members as they secured him in his place.

Those not on the committee crowded close to the chair backs of the circle in order that nothing should escape them. The excitement was tense, and everyone was breathing hard. When all was ready Mr. Behemoth Scott took his place in the circle. Drawing a long breath and grasping his chair for support, he spoke in a hushed and husky voice: “All raidy, now? Ah asks silence from eve'body. Turn out de lights”!

At the fateful words Stygian darkness enveloped the crowded room. The shades had been drawn and not the faintest ray from the dim street lights penetrated the place. It was stifling hot, and the assembled investigators were perspiring freely....

Silence—black, awe-inspired silence! Two hundred pairs of superstitious eyes peered into the horrible gloom—two hundred pairs of ears strained at the tomblike stillness. The suspense was awful, and none dared move. Occasionally some familiar sound came from the world outside: the clang of the Tenth Avenue car or the whistle of a tugboat out in the river, but these sounds were of another existence—they seemed distant and unfamiliar and wholly out of place in the mystery and terror of the Voodoo seance.

The minutes slid by, and nothing happened. The suspense was worse than ever. Something stirred in the circle. Two hundred hearts missed a beat. Then the whining, terror-stricken voice of the mulatto broke the stillness: “Let Travis try,” he whispered hoarsely. “My spirits will not come until 'e 'as tried. Let 'im try fo' fifteen minutes, and when 'e 'as failed I will summon the ghost of Bula-Wayo, the king of all the tribes of the Niger. But let Travis try first!” This last almost pleadingly.

A moment more of silence and Ambrose's deep voice boomed forth in the darkness.

“Ah's willin',” he declared. “Anythin' dat now appears will be mah doin'—ten minits is all Ah asks. Am dat sat'sfact'ry?”

“Yaas,” replied the voice of Behemoth Scott. “Go ahaid wif yo' sperit-summonin', Mista Travis.”

“Ah'll cawncentrate now,” replied Ambrose, “an' sho'tly you-all will witness ample proof of mah bein' a genuine Voo-doo. Ah's stahtin '.”

Silence more terrible than ever fell upon the waiting negroes. Then—horror of horrors! a peculiar grating, rustling sound came from the vicinity of Ambrose—a slight creaking—and again silence. The investigators held hands of neighbours who trembled from sheer panic, whose breath came hard and panting from this awful suspense!

Another creaking, as though Ambrose had shifted his weight in his chair....

Then—baleful—in its green, ghastly glow—a dim, indistinct light shone in the centre of the circle! Moving slowly, like a newly awakened spirit, it waved in the very midst of the gasping committee. Back and forth, up and down, it moved—glowing, vaporous, ghostly. Two hundred pairs of bulging eyes saw the horror—and realized that it was an enormous hand, terribly deformed!

Some one moaned with terror—a woman screamed. “De hand ob death!” shrieked a man. “Run—run fo' yo' lives!”

The stampede was spontaneous! Chairs were overturned and tables smashed in this frightful panic in the dark. No one thought of turning on the lights—everyone's sole aim was to leave that appalling shining hand—and get out!

A crashing on the stairway marked where Raffin, chair and all, was making his fear-stricken way to the street. In one brief minute the place was apparently empty save for Ambrose. Still tied to his chair, he inquired: “Is any one hyar?”

For a second there was silence, then the dulcet tones of Miss Aphrodite fell on the big negro's ear: “Ah's hyar, Ambrose,” she said.

“Well, den”—recognizing her voice—“would you mine lightin' de gas till Ah can tie mahself loose from dis hyar throne ob glory?”

In a moment a feeble gaslight shone, disclosing Aphrodite—somewhat disarranged by the panic—standing smiling in front of the erstwhile Voodoo. She looked down at his feet. There, sure enough, one huge member was unshod and stockingless; the elastic-slit congress gaiter, lost in the shuffle, lay out of the radius of Ambrose's long leg. Miss Aphrodite picked it up and, stooping, slipped it over his mighty toes, noticing as she did so the thick coating of phosphorescent paint that still covered them.

“Ambrose,” she whispered, “Ah wasn't scaired. No ghos' eber was bohn dat had han's de size ob yo' feet!”

An embarrassed silence followed; the gas jet flickered weakly; then Ambrose said: “Untie mah han's, Aphrodite—Ah'd jes' lak to hug you!”

“Oh, Ambrose,” she cried coyly. But she untied the rope just the same.

Again came silence, broken only by a certain strange sound. Then Ambrose's voice came softly through the gloom: “Aphrodite,” it said, “yo' lips am jes' lak plush!”